Africa: The next frontier for digital innovation

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By:  Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director: Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University, Johannesburg

The digital economy thrives on innovation. For half a century a seemingly inexhaustible stream of new products, devices and systems based on digital technology has impacted almost every sector of the economy and human endeavor. Established industries have been transformed, disrupted and, in some cases, destroyed by the bits and bytes of the digital revolution. New industries have emerged and have changed the world in unexpected ways.

The digital economy is based on four broad clusters of technology, namely digital hardware, content, software and connectivity. In the coming years, digital hardware innovation will result in the rapid growth of smart devices, wearable technology and the Internet of Things. Content innovation has resulted in a world in which almost every form of information is collected, manipulated, shared and stored in a digital format. Software is the glue that brings hardware and content together. And all of this happens in an increasingly connected world.

It is important to appreciate how and where digital innovation happens in the 21st Century. We are constantly learning new things. The rapid development of new technology implies that there is a constant need for practitioners to acquire new skills. In learning these new skills some practitioners find novel solutions to existing problems – in other words, they innovate. Some of these solutions may be commercialised via existing companies or new startup enterprises. It is then that the magic happens. Each new product or service leads to a new round of learning new skills and the cycle is repeated.

There are two important things about this “digital innovation lifecycle”. It is rapid – an idea can become a new product in weeks – and it requires multidisciplinary inputs.  For these reasons it seldom happens in “Mom and Dad’s garage”. Nor does it happen in large corporations (because it is too rapid and often disruptive). In the 21st Century digital innovation happens mostly in “hubs”, “innovation zones” or “co-working areas”. Almost every city in the world now has an area where digital enthusiasts gather, innovate and launch startups. London has Silicon Roundabout, Boston has Kendal Square and Nairobi has the iHub.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, University of the Witwatersrand, known as Wits University – one of only two African University’s ranked on the international list of top research universities – is setting up a large digital innovation hub, called the Tshimologong Precinct in the Braamfontein inner-city area. “Tshimologong” is the Setswana word for “place of new beginnings”.

In setting up Tshimologong, we at Wits believe that while Africa certainly has its fair share of problems in search of a solution, we also have a new generation of digital innovators who will find creative solutions to some of these problems. The Tshimologong Precinct, and the strategic partnerships that Wits is setting up around its creation, will provide a conducive space and attract a community of digital innovators into the heart of Africa’s major business hub. Johannesburg could well become the next frontier for the world’s wave of digital innovation.